The New Australians of South America

By Ben Stubbs 5 July 2012
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Nearly 120 years ago an idealistic bunch of Australians set sail for South America to build their utopia.

STORIES OF AN AUSTRALIAN colony in the South American jungle have brought me to Asunción, capital city of the landlocked nation of Paraguay, where men with guns linger on street corners and young thieves known as pirañitas lurk, waiting to relieve unwary tourists of their belongings. The streets of Asunción are no place for a gringo such as myself, conspicuous as I am with my blond hair and boardies – so I’ve enlisted the help of a well-connected local.  I’m now nervously awaiting his arrival in the lobby of my hotel.

He double-parks and strides through the doorway with a swagger, tufts of chest hair poking through his open shirt. He grabs my hand with the familiarity of an old friend. “G’day mate! Welcome to Paraguay,” he says. Roddie Wood is the grandson of Bill and Lillian Wood, who travelled to South America in 1895 with a group of Australian socialists determined to create a ‘New Australia’ in the Paraguayan backwoods. He is one of 2000 Australian-Paraguayan descendants of the original settlers.

My great-great-great-grandfather William Peat was chief foreman on the construction of the Royal Tar tall ship that carried the utopians to South America and it’s this personal connection that has fuelled my fascination with New Australia. I’ve travelled through the heart of South America to find the colony – across rivers, along muddy roads, and through some of the most dangerous cities in this part of the world, to discover what remains of the most ambitious diaspora in Australia’s history.

In the early 1890s, Australia was in the grip of recession. As shearers scraped a living wandering the stations of Queensland and NSW, new, less-favourable working conditions were put to them. Their refusal to sign wealthy pastoralists’ agreements that failed to comply with union-approved conditions heralded the Australian Labour Movement. As defence forces clashed with striking shearers across Queensland, firebrand journalist William Lane made his move.

He dreamt of a utopian existence in cooperative socialism and saw the disaffected shearers as his perfect acolytes. He published erudite pieces enticing people to join him. At that time, there was no socialist state in the world where Lane could lead his followers, but it was vital to him that they leave Australia and all its social issues behind.

The New Australia Settlement

Lane started the New Australia Settlement Association and, with a subscription fee of £60 (about $5000 in today’s terms) and 2000-odd subscribers, he bought Royal Tar. Their goal was Paraguay in tropical South America. The country had problems of its own. Former dictator Francisco Lopez had simultaneously declared war on Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in 1865. What followed was a horrendous slaughter. Paraguay fought for five years to resist technologically advanced armies. At the end of the war, the nation was devastated. Ninety per cent of the male population was dead, leaving only 14,000 able-bodied men. The government was keen to repopulate and rebuild.

Lane had sent scouts to South America looking for land. Enquiries were made in southern Argentina near the Welsh colony in Chubut and also in the Andes, but the best offer came from Paraguay. The government gave the Australians on the proviso they would settle 1200 families there.

Before they sailed, Lane wrote up strict rules for the colony. “It is right living to share equally because selfishness is wrong: To teetotal because liquor drinking is wrong; to uphold life marriage and keep white because looseness of living is wrong.” Lane’s followers were convinced, and on 16 July 1893 the shearers and socialists “shook the dust of Queensland from their feet in disgust and cast their eyes to a land where at all events men and women will have equal opportunity”.

The voyage of Royal Tar took 68 days, passing New Zealand and rounding treacherous Cape Horn before continuing on to Uruguay on the east coast of the continent. They switched to a smaller boat and made their way up into the heart of the continent along the great rivers of South America, as far as Asunción, where they arrived on 22 September 1893. They continued by train and bullock cart to the site of the colony, noting that the countryside looked like the Darling Downs in Queensland. But the utopians were “wet to the skin, hungry and tired” by the time they arrived at the site of New Australia, and the conditions in the jungle were more difficult than they could have imagined. Polvorinos – tiny ground-dwelling parasites – would dig into the soles of their feet and lay eggs. Jaguars stalked the camp, and it was nothing like the arable land and river frontage they’d been promised.

The New Australia colony takes shape

Despite these difficulties, the colony took shape. They cleared the surrounding jungle and constructed thatched cottages, with a butcher, a smithy and a school, all separated by rows of pretty orange trees. They maintained ideals of no personal property and everyone working for the benefit of the community, sharing all that was gained in the hope of setting an example to new arrivals. Several thousand cattle were purchased and from the outside all seemed well. But inside the settlement, things were deteriorating; many didn’t like Lane’s strict rules, seeking out the odd draught of rum and the company of ‘non-white’ locals.

The arrival of a second batch of colonists didn’t have the effect Lane had hoped. When one was discovered in the possession of rum-laced milk, as payment from a local Guarani farmer, he was booted out of the colony. This led to an exodus and a split between the ‘Rebels’ and those loyal to Lane, the ‘Royalists’. On 12 May 1894, 63 teetotallers, the “cream of the colony”, followed Lane 35km south-east to the location of their new breakaway settlement, Cosme, on the banks of the Pirapó River. The original colony kept the name New Australia and the 217 remaining settlers adopted a more relaxed style of socialist living. With Lane’s new venture in Cosme things started promisingly. The colonists welcomed additional members from England, Scotland and the United States of America and built houses, dining halls, a library, a smithy and a tannery.

The local children were schooled by recent Australian arrival Mary Gilmore, who graces our $10 note. She stayed for five years as a teacher (see box, opposite). Education was given to all in the colony and Gilmore taught everything from grammar and ‘Mohammedanism’ to how to properly amputate limbs. They had a library of more than 2000 books; and music, theatre, and even cricket were taught to ensure that expatriates knew of more than just labouring and farm work. Cosme also gave women the right to vote on colony matters, long before it was common elsewhere.

But the strict way of life eventually took its toll. The people lived in conditions that were little better than those they’d left behind. When the first colonists had sailed out of Sydney Harbour, Lane had proclaimed: “The world will be changed if we succeed, and we will succeed! We cannot help succeeding!” But by 1899 his dreams were in tatters and he abandoned the cause, relocating to New Zealand, where he became the editor of the New Zealand Herald. Without him, the passion for socialism gradually dissipated and both Cosme and New Australia turned to private ownership. A trickle of journalists visited the first colonists, but as time passed, the story was forgotten.

New Australians settle in Paraguay

As I pursue my own adventure in Paraguay, Roddie tells me of his link to Henry Lawson, who featured Roddie’s grandfather in his bush tales Send Round the Hat and That Pretty Girl in the Army. He gives me a copy to read while I travel. The Wood clan is prominent among the New Australia descendants, and they still speak English and talk fondly of Australia. Roddie wears an Akubra with pride. “I went to Australia in ’91 and I felt at home,” he tells me as we climb into his Land Rover for a tour of the city. We drive through quiet streets of the capital, lined with pink-blossomed lapacho trees. Roddie flicks on the stereo with a smile. Slim Dusty’s lament for a pub with no beer blasts through the open windows, startling police officers directing traffic. While there are still some families in New Australia and Cosme, most have spread across the country, and a few have even emigrated to Australia.

At barbecues across the city I meet the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original Australian socialists – Ronald Birks, Rodrigo Jacks, Rogelio Cadogan and a long line of Woods. At Roddie’s Spanish bungalow in the suburbs I note the Hills Hoist and the pictures of outback town Bourke. “My father was a splendid storyteller,” he says. “He always kept our attention at the estancia at night, telling us what his parents told him about Bourke and living in the bush.” There have been a few emigrations to Australia, but most today have given up trying – their link deemed tenuous by the Australian Government. “Many people are frustrated. There are so many problems getting a visa now. There isn’t even an Australian Embassy. They are just sick of the obstacles,” he tells me as he cracks another beer.

While the Australians in Asunción seem to be doing well, I set off for New Australia to see what remains of the dream. As a sea of grassland drifts past, I read The Loaded Dog and The Drover’s Wife. After three hours I’m bundled off the bus on a red-dirt road across from the Motel Kiss. In front of me is a sign that reads “Bienvenidos a Nueva Australia”. There are now two villages, Nueva Australia and Nueva Londres. The colonists petitioned the Australian Government for permission to call the newer village New Canberra in 1989, but never received a response and named it after London instead.

I visit the school, and the principal shows me their Aussie flag, donated by a backpacker in 2006, and a toilet on the edge of the school – a gift from the Australian Embassy. I see blue eyes and freckles among the darker-skinned Paraguayans, and I’m directed up the road to meet the Caseys.  Gilbert Casey assumed leadership of New Australia in 1899, after Lane departed, and his descendants live on the same spot today. I arrive at their muddy plot, shaded by bitter-orange trees, and Gilbert’s grandson, octogenarian Gilberto, shakes with Parkinson’s disease as he talks. “We’re the marginalised people of Paraguay now,” he says. “We’re more desperate than my grandfather was in Australia.” Gilberto explains that although they are not Australian, neither are they Paraguayan, a sentiment shared by many.

Colony of New Australian descendents still remains

I’m in New Australia at a fortunate time; for only the second time in its 119-year history, they’re having a foundation day celebration. Under the Australian and Paraguayan flags in the plaza I meet the locals, including the Joneses and the Murrays who are the descendants of Muttaburra horseman Edward Murray. I meet the Butterworths who ask me if I can help them with visas. I visit the local cemetery with fair-skinned Susan McCreen. She tells me of the Australians who left here to fight with the Allies in World War I.

After this I travel south-east to Cosme. It would have once taken a week, but I hail a bus and arrive in three hours. I spend the night in the quiet cobblestoned town of Caazapá that sits in the shadows of the Ybytyruzú mountains, before taking another bus to Cosme the next morning. As luck would have it, I meet one of the few remaining Australian-Paraguayans on the bus. “I’m Pat Wood, welcome to Cosme!” he says in English. Pat phones his wife and tells her to kill a chook for lunch.

While New Australia is slowly growing, Cosme seems a forgotten plug of humanity in the jungle. There are more Paraguayans than Australians here now, though Pat and his brother Francisco are still respected as leaders of the community.

Pat and another brother Peter emigrated to Australia in the early 1960s, but only Peter stayed and is currently visiting from Griffith, NSW. The brothers show me the jungle they used to explore as children and the cemetery of their parents and grandparents. One little piece of Australia still here is Francisco’s magnificent Queenslander-style house, built in the ’80s.

I stay in Cosme for a week. Pat and I spend our evenings under his mango tree sipping beer and watching soccer on the dusty field where William Lane, Mary Gilmore and the other dreamers once walked. This utopian experiment failed, but my time here has shown me that Australia is far from forgotten.

Source: Australian Geographic #108 (March/April 2012)